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From Closed To Open Adoption: The Moments That Made My Heart Sing


My daughter Elizabeth gave birth to her second son last week. The morning he was born was filled with many delights - seeing him for the first time, learning his name, watching as he was introduced to his three-year-old brother, and of course my daughter’s radiant smile. It was a morning filled with magical moments! But the one that truly made my heart sing came later in the day when I returned to the hospital for a second visit. I walked into my daughter’s room to see Bob, her birthfather, holding his grandson.

I imagine that for many people who are thinking about adopting (and even for some adoptive parents), it is difficult to understand why this was the moment that made my heart sing. The idea of my daughter’s birthfather being at the hospital may sound troubling, prompting thoughts like, “This proves what I’ve worried about: the child you adopt is never really yours. You always have to share.” Perhaps I have added to this inner discord by saying straight out that Bob was holding his grandson. Grandson, with no “birth” preceding it.

To understand why I loved seeing Bob hold Baby Ethan (and why I was even happier when he and I first changed a diaper together), we need to go back in time. Thirty-three years ago, Bob sat in another hospital and held another baby and knew that he had to say good-bye. I cannot begin to imagine what this was like for him. I only know that it had to be incredibly painful. And because we were living in the strange world of closed adoption, I was in my home - about four miles from that hospital - over the moon happy because we’d finally gotten ‘the call’.

And so, we went on with our lives. Bob said good-bye to the baby that he and his fiancé had named Rebecca. My husband Don and I welcomed the baby we named Elizabeth. Bob married, had two children, built a good career, and thrived as everyone’s ‘go-to’ friend and family member. Don and I had a second daughter and later divorced. I became an adoption social worker and my daughter Elizabeth grew up to be a sweet, caring person who knew from her early teens that she wanted to become a nurse. Over the years I often thought of her birthparents. But knowing absolutely nothing about them, it was difficult to conjure up any sort of mental image. I coped with this by writing letters, which I sent to an adoption agency that held the records from our original agency, which had since closed. I haven’t read any of these letters in years. But I imagine that if I did, I’d find them awkward and strange efforts to reach out to the nameless, faceless, identity-less people who had made me a mom.

Everything changed early in Elizabeth’s freshman year of college. “I’m eighteen and I want to find them,” she announced. Don and I supported her request but we both worried about what was to come. We doubted that Elizabeth had thought through what might lie ahead. With our agency no longer in business, it was quite possible that a search would be difficult. There was also the possibility that she would face rejection, find birthparents who were in a bad way, or experience unanticipated feelings toward birth siblings.

Fast forward over ten years to Elizabeth’s wedding at which there were fourteen members of her birth family in attendance. They were Bob, his wife Karen, and their teenage children Ben and Hannah. Hannah was a bridesmaid. The celebration also included Della (Elizabeth’s grandmother on her birthmother’s side), Aunt Mary, her husband, and four children - two of whom were flower girls. Then there was cousin Veronica and her husband. In fact, it was Veronica’s mother who performed the ceremony.

How we got from “I want to find them” to fourteen people at the wedding is a convoluted story. It began with Bob responding to a letter of inquiry from a social worker. By the way Dee Dee, Elizabeth’s birthmother, did not respond and never has. Nearly ten years went by and it looked like her reunion would be limited to Bob and his family. But things suddenly changed when Bob spotted an obituary for someone in Dee Dee’s family. He sent it to Elizabeth and the rest is internet history. Elizabeth located Mary (Della’s sister) on Facebook and took the opportunity to introduce herself. Imagine opening your computer at 11 p.m and learning you have a niece you never even knew about! And that is how Elizabeth was welcomed by Dee Dee’s family, with open hearts and open arms. For this - and for Bob’s equally loving, welcoming, and joyful response - I will be forever grateful.

Here are some more moments that made my heart sing: at Elizabeth’s wedding, when I looked over and saw Bob talking with Della, the woman who he had once assumed would be his mother-in-law. I asked her later what they had spoken about and she said that he explained how Dee Dee had hidden her pregnancy and the baby from her family. Then later in the evening, I got to give a toast and say what it meant to celebrate with Elizabeth’s birth family. Another moment was was when I looked over to the dance floor and saw Don’s ninety-year-old mother dancing with Mitchell, Elizabeth’s eleven-year-old birth cousin.

When my daughter first found Bob, I asked her what it felt like. Without hesitating she replied, “More family.” I could go on and on about what it has meant for me to move from closed to open adoption. But I think that those two words - more family - say it all. Although I didn’t quite see it this way at the time, when we adopted Elizabeth thirty-three years ago, we signed on for more family. In one way or another, we would always be connected with her birth family. Living in the strange state of closed adoption, that connection had no shape or form. I felt like I was living with emotional blurred vision. Things began to come into focus when Elizabeth found Bob and continued when she found Della and Mary, et al.

Although at the time, I worried and thought that Elizabeth was too young for her search, as it turned out I am grateful that she did it her way. By finding her magnificent birth family when she did, she gave all of us the opportunity to welcome the next generation together.

Wearing my Professional Hat

As an adoption professional and author, I have found that “one size does not fit all” when it comes to open adoption. Rather, I have found openness to be an organic process - one that unfolds or doesn’t - depending on the cast of characters, geography, timing, and more. I encourage my clients to approach adoption prepared for whatever degree of openness unfolds. Although my personal experience in moving from closed to open adoption was overwhelmingly positive, I am keenly aware that this is not always the case.